CIA Insider: Panetta’s A Good Pick for CIA Chief

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The front page of The Washington Post screams, “Obama Is Under Fire Over Panetta Selection.” The article notes that “current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama’s choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director.” blogger and national security journalist Jeff Stein, quoting a former CIA operations veteran, reports that the rank-and-file reaction to Panetta at the CIA has been “overwhelmingly negative.” Stein notes that many CIA field people aren’t keen on bringing an intelligence establishment outsider into the CIA and would rather have someone who knows the nitty-gritty of spy work running the place–though Stein does report that “a number of former top CIA officials” have told him that Panetta could be a good choice, given that he can be expected to have the standing within the Obama administration to bring effective leadership to the agency.

I asked a former top CIA official who had served not too long ago to share his/her view of the Panetta pick. S/he would only do so if not identified. I know it’s often unsatisfying to read a long quote from an unnamed source. But his/her perspective is interesting enough to merit presenting the full response. Let me add that this person is savvy in both the ways of Langley and Washington:

I was expecting to be surprised…and I was. It seems to me to be a reasonably good one pick given the cards they had dealt themselves. The Obama transition folks massively mishandled the [onetime contender for CIA chief] John Brennan situation. When they caved to a little outside pressure [which resulted from Brennan’s previous association with the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation procedures] and forced him to remove himself from consideration — they ended up ruling out a whole class of potential candidates. (i.e. anyone who had served in a position of any significance in intelligence in the past 8 years). So then what could they do?

It would have been bad to pick someone straight off the Hill for the job…which would have signaled overt politicization of the position. As you undoubtedly know, several current and recently former Members of Congress were lobbying hard for the job — an instant disqualification in my mind.

It also would not have been ideal to pick another retired military guy…given that [retired Admiral Dennis] Blair is going to be [Director of National Intelligence]….it is not good to have all the top intel positions held by retired military (I know that is what we have now — with McConnell & Hayden — but it is not ideal).

So…they got a creative and found someone who is respected around town….who generally knows how intelligence works (having seen the product as Clinton’s Chief of Staff)…who has run something bigger than a congressional office (OMB)…who is familiar with some of the current issues (having been on the Iraq Study Group) and who (from what I hear) is a pretty good “people-person” who should be able to win over the hearts and minds of the Agency workforce.

Panetta will be well-advised to keep in place some of the top current career officials…a process which apparently is in train. Hopefully he will not come in with a whole cadre of outsiders to help him run the place. That didn’t work well for Stansfield Turner, John Deutch, or, most colorfully, for Porter Goss.

Clearly, Team Obama shot themselves in the foot with the premature leak of their intention to nominate…pissing of DiFi and Rocky [Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and Jay Rockefeller]. Unnecessary self-inflicted wound.

I don’t buy for a minute that Panetta’s selection signals anything in particular — you see some pundits saying it shows he is going to preside over slashing budgets….or will be happily subservient to Blair etc. Seems to me they picked him because he was plausible, time was running out, and there were no actors who play CIA operatives on TV willing to take the job.

I asked this source if Panetta could expect to confront a campaign of leaks from POed CIA people before or after he arrives at CIA HQ. S/he replied:

Nah…You’ll see a little sniping here and there from a few knuckleheads….but if Panetta comes in and tries to win over the workforce…it won’t be that hard to do. Treat the people well…respect what they do….don’t try to punish people for trying to honestly serve the previous administration and he’ll be fine.

On the other hand, if he shows up with a dozen political operatives hell-bent on squaring the place away and “fixing” a dysfunctional agency….he’ll be back on the walnut farm before the mid-term elections.

I’m not sure that a covert campaign will not be waged to prevent Panetta’s confirmation. And one shoe that has not yet dropped belongs to the Senate Republicans. Are they eager to go after Panetta? After all, don’t they have to go after at least one of Obama’s appointments to prove to their grassroots loyalists that they still have some bite? The Panetta appointment right now is balanced on a fine line between sure thing and big fight.

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